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Flying High in Big Sky Country

Monday Feb 23, 2009 in Magazine

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By Lindsey Richtmyer


It may be one of US rugby’s best kept secrets, but believe it or not they do play the game in Montana. The state may only have one college rugby club, but a fever for the sport has spread in high schools throughout “Big Sky Country” and shows no sign of being cured.


Montanans are no strangers to rugby. A little tournament called “Maggotfest” has invaded western Montana for the past 32 years. And while “Fest” has painted a vivid portrait of wild-haired, beer-drinking men and women clad in short shorts (and sometimes no shorts), several members of the Montana Rugby Union are trying to whitewash that stereotype. Against a tall stack of odds—notably geographic isolation, brutal weather conditions and common misconceptions about the game—Montana’s veteran ruggers are pioneering a high-school rugby program through their passion for the sport and the desire to share that love with Montana’s youth.


It all started in 2003 in the little town called Simms, with a total population under 400. Thanks to the efforts of Steve Lundgren and Randy Thompson, two high school teachers and former ruggers, the Simms Tigers kicked-off in a blizzard with eight kids. A few other former MT Rugby Union players jumped on board to help coach and the team has been rucking on the high school’s football field ever since.


“Our kids embraced it,” says Russ Bloom, one of the coaches. “They latched on immediately. There are 110 kids in the school and about 30 of them go out for rugby.”


For three years Simms had the only high school team in Montana. They traveled to Canada, Washington and Idaho, and even then they played mostly college teams. While those games built the boys’ self-esteem, Bloom is thankful there is now “local” competition, even if it does mean traveling nearly 200 miles to Missoula where most Montana Youth Rugby Association (MYRA) games are played.


“You can only travel so much with a high school team,” he says. “I don’t know if we’d still be going otherwise. We reached critical mass. Four to six teams makes for a pretty good season.”


In the past two years, due to a dedicated group of MT Rugby Union old boys with a knack for tackling administrative details, three new teams have sprung up in western Montana, and three more are in the works for the 2009 season. MYRA bylaws are the same as USA Rugby’s state-based model and all teams are required to be CIPP (Club and Individual Participant Program) registered for liability insurance. They must have at least one member of the coaching staff certified through USA Rugby. Since most teams lack a field of their own, the $1 million insurance policy encourages collaboration with local schools for use of their facilities.


“We recognize the only way for us to sustain the sport and make sure it doesn’t go away is through youth rugby,” says Jake Kreilick, one of the coaches for the Missoula Mud Dogs. “We want to grow the sport, but we need to build a good base with the current clubs.” Kreilick believes that responsibility falls on the core players with Montana’s adult teams.


The area’s remoteness is still the biggest challenge facing the growing league. Bryan Taulbee, one of the coaches for the Drummond team, said location and shortage of funds are the primary reasons Montana teams struggle to travel and compete nationally. “Geographic isolation makes it impossible to travel to Utah or out East every week,” says Taulbee. “Our funding is not through schools. We’d have to find funding elsewhere to compete on a national level.”


So instead of complaining or waiting for a handout, MYRA teams stepped to the plate with creative fundraising ideas and enlisted the help of supportive parents and community members. The Drummond team sold ads and created a community phone book. As an alternative to charging individual dues, Frenchtown’s Iron Horse team held a player auction. Each kid had to work eight hours for the person who bought them and the team made $5,000. So far, the clubs have earned enough to carry them through their seasons and get to a few tournaments.


Support from parents and the community is the key to each team’s survival, but that support doesn’t come easy. Since the rugby season is in the spring, high-school track coaches aren’t very supportive because the rugby teams recruit their athletes. Bloom and Taulbee understand that most high school coaches aren’t very familiar with the game and worry about injuries. “The 10 percent who are against it are almost all coaches,” said Bloom. “Rugby is physical, not violent, but we’ve had to overcome opposition.”


Taulbee says parents are also concerned about the injury factor, but they’re even more worried about teenagers adopting the wild, off-field antics that characterize some adult teams.  MYRA standards are actually stricter than those of the school districts and the league has a zero-tolerance policy during the season, something that helps earn respect from parents and teachers.


Troy Doxy, a coach and president of the Frenchtown Iron Horse Rugby Club, says the team had great support from parents last season. “We had 100 people come watch our games,” Doxy says. “And I never had to ask parents to chip in. They’d wash jerseys, bring drinks and food.” One parent even told Doxy it was torture watching football after rugby because the former seemed slow. “Once parents watch the game, they absolutely love it,” he says.


For the kids on the pitch, fundamentals are the focus at practices and games. According to Doxy, “If you can teach them the basics, other things fall into place. I would rather have a team that rucks properly than worry about kicking for field position.”


MYRA coaches are also teaching kids skills for life. “I try to instill in the guys how to play the game, but give them a cultural sense, too,” says Taulbee. “They need to dress properly and carry themselves well in public. Be respectful of other teams. Steer away from arrogance and trash talk. [We] teach them to be young adults; life lessons along with the game of rugby.”


The strategy seems to be working. Unlike so many high school sports, MYRA coaches unanimously agree that their teams have come together as friends. Kids from a variety of sports backgrounds, and some with no sports experience, are finding a role on their rugby team. “Some of the best ruggers are not necessarily the best athletes,” observes Taulbee. “There are so many different aspects of what a player can do on the field; it’s not as user-defined as other sports.”


In Simms, Bloom says their kids get the whole philosophy. The rugby players have more stringent academic requirements and the club stresses sportsmanship. Most importantly, high school rugby presents a future avenue for many kids. In Simms alone, four players were offered college rugby scholarships. One took the offer and went to Embry Riddle in Prescott. AZ.


Casey Clark, a flyhalf from Drummond, took his skills to New Zealand and is completing grade 13, an extension of US high school. He plans to build up credits for college and hopes to play for St. Mary’s in California. Chad Hanson, the scrumhalf for Frenchtown, was going to enlist in the army. After just one season, he’s now playing for Central Washington University on a full-ride Army ROTC/Rugby scholarship.


“There is a sense of pride in seeing a kid who is semi-athletic, and then all of a sudden you see that light turn on,” says Taulbee. “It’s such a good feeling. That’s when I get really excited.”

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